Ke-Sook Lee at Dolphin
Art in America, January 2002
By Alice Thorson

The materials and techniques used by Korean-born Kansas City artist Ke-Sook Lee speak of feminine delicacy and the domestic domain of house and garden. Grids of rice-paper squares punctuated by areas of stitching and little insets of lace and netting suggest quilts, while lacy edgings connote pillowcases and hand towels. A palette of quiet pastel hues and restful neutrals conspires to further this impression of feminine stereotypes. But the forms that emerge from the compositions, with their calligraphic evocations of seeds and flowers, insects aloft and abstracted figures, suggest a female determination and strength as unrelenting as nature itself.

Where Lee's previous bodies of work, with their forthright allusions to domestic tasks and maternal responsibilities, had their frazzled moments, this latest exhibition, titled "Stories from the Garden," radiated a sense of artistic mission fulfilled. It benefited, too, from Lee's abandonment of real linens as a working surface for facsimiles made from handmade paper and a stiff fabric called tarlatan. The results are more formally unified and less distractingly literal.

Arrayed in a grid on the wall, "Hand Towels: Dye My Hands" (2001) comprises 24 slablike rectangles of handmade paper, tinted in soft shades of blue and brown and perforated by doilies and open netted areas. Fading in and out of these plasterlike surfaces are Lee's personal hieroglyphs of drawn and painted figural and insect forms.

Employing alternating squares of white tarlatan and plain rice paper, Awakening in Her Garden II (2001) is the most striking of several pieces to use the format of a patchwork quilt. Lee perforated the rice-paper squares with radiating patterns resembling the cutout snowflakes children make in school. On the tarlatan squares, motifs such as a tiny seed embryo or the head of a coneflower are calligraphically rendered in brown pigment that she derives from clay. Providing linear counterpoint, simple designs stitched in black thread flow over and around the painted images.

The nine-part series "Dish Towels, Garden Flowers" (2001) offered this show's most ethereal and minimal compositions. Lines of stitching and changes in diffuse, atmospheric color articulate more casual grids, dominated by the division of earth and sky. In this more restrained context, Lee's motifs--ascendant doily "suns" against a watery blue sky, subtly sexual plant and insect motifs nestling in the brown earth below--take on a heightened emotional charge.